Whose choice is it anyway?
A few weeks ago, a group of six Muslim women students at a government-run women’s college in Udupi district in Karnataka were denied entry into their classrooms because, apparently, the young women were defying the college’s uniform rules by wearing the hijab. Since then, other colleges have started the same practice, young women have protested against this systemic discrimination, and young Hindu men wearing saffron scarves have intimidated, heckled young Muslim women in other colleges in Karnataka. The state closed schools and colleges for three days, the matter went to court, and the Karnataka High Court (at the time of this writing) passed an interim order directing students to not wear hijab or saffron shawls or bring in religious flags to schools/colleges that have a uniform. Since then, petitions, protests, Twitter storms, and debates have been flying fast and furious around the country and abroad.
Polarizing voices have been growing - a pattern that has become evident in the last few years. The “Hijab row” is the most recent manifestation of that pattern that has sparked various debates in the country.
These debates tend to be couched in binaries and polarizing options, leaving little or no room for nuance or bridging of gaps.
Hijab versus education
Hijab versus saffron shawls
Politics versus religion
Patriarchy versus women’s agency
Religious freedom versus perceived threats
Police versus protestors
Amidst these deafening, aggressive, and dulling debates a refrain arises again and again – my hijab, my choice. This is what we want to address today. It seems that this idea of ‘my hijab, my choice’ has been met with resistance and questioning from various sides of the debate. There are those who see the hijab as a way of Muslim women asserting their identity, their faith, and signalling to the outside world that they have made a covenant and want to abide by that. On the other hand, there are those who see it as a sign of patriarchy, of women being silenced, hidden, and treated as less than, by men and by misogynistic cultural norms. Then, there are still others who believe that these women have been conditioned and brainwashed into believing that this is their choice – whereas it is actually a sign of internalized misogyny and patriarchy.
We, at Metamorphosis, believe that all of this can be true and all of this can co-exist. There are probably other views that we are not even aware of and haven’t captured. We ask you to consider this – why does any of this matter to you? How does what a young woman wears to school or college become a matter of national security? How does what a young woman wears to school or college create a law-and-order situation requiring the state to shut down schools and colleges? Yet, this is where we are today. Not because of what these young women wore – but because there are systemic forces that are determined to use that symbol as the match that lights an inferno.
In the greater debate about who counts and whose voices matter in a democracy, it is clear that marginalized groups are once again pushed to a corner.
The choices that the Hindutva forces have made - to mobilize quickly and aggressively, to distribute saffron shawls and robes as a sign of war and not peace, to incentivise and radicalize young men and teachers to suddenly threaten and attack their own classmates and friends with whom they shared their classrooms just last week, and to curtail women’s access to education once again, in an effort to distract and sow discontent - these choices have not been questioned. Why is that the case?
Ultimately, the one choice that we actually think does matter, has sadly been drowned out by these other debates. That choice is about whether we will stand for true inclusion or not. Do we believe in everyone’s access to dignity, to education, to public spaces, to laughter, to hope and to a vision for a future; a future where what one wears, what one eats, whom one worships, whom one marries and how one speaks, is not something that gets policed or punished or judged?
When in doubt, those of us in the privileged group can choose to do one thing - consider a simple thought experiment - what if the accident of birth had caused you to be born as the person or in the group that is being victimized and attacked? How fair or justified would you see the actions being meted out to that group being?
That perspective taking, that empathy, that pause before judgment - we believe that is a choice. We remind ourselves and each other to make this choice everyday, especially in a world that is too impatient for that empathetic pause. This is exactly why we need to make that choice.
What will your choice be?